Plans filed for Air Rights complex
Oct. 8, 1999

October 8, 1999

by Myra Mensh Patner

Staff Writer

After more than a year of discussion with the Town of Chevy Chase, the Los Angeles-based Lowe Enterprises has filed plans for a housing project at the Air Rights complex, straddling the border between the Bethesda business district and the Town of Chevy Chase.

The Planning Board will hold a public hearing Dec. 2 on the project, which will bring an 11-story high-rise apartment house with more than 170 apartment units plus 12, two-story townhouses to the back of the Air Rights Building, an office and retail complex at 7315 Wisconsin Ave.

The new project will have its entrance on Waverly Street, but will be built next to the Town of Chevy Chase, with the townhouses and terraces of the project visible above the town.

The largest piece of the project will rise to 95 feet, which is less than the 130 feet once proposed for the project, but still five feet taller than the height recommended in the Bethesda master plan.

Maurice Walters, an architect with the firm of Torti Gallas and Partners/CHK, which is designing the project, said building above the Air Rights Building's six-level parking garage, which juts out at the Town of Chevy Chase's border, requires a taller building.

"We have this at the bottom pushing us up," Walters said.

The blueprint shows the apartment complex will gradually step down in height on the side that faces the town, going from 11 floors at the highest point of 95 feet, to 67 feet on the eighth floor, 58 feet on the seventh floor and then to a height of 41 feet.

Lowe Enterprises is a privately owned, national real estate company based in Los Angeles that bought the Air Rights Building about two years ago for almost $100 million, with plans to add housing units to the back.

Lowe held numerous meetings with the Town of Chevy Chase, floating ideas that were rejected after complaints from town residents. Residents said they did not want a building that went too high or that loomed over the town and shadowed it or that in any way detracted from the town's Elm Street Park.

They also expressed concern over the amount of light and noise projected over the town.

Jane Stunkel, council member of the Town of Chevy Chase, said the council has not seen the current plans, but she expects they are no different from what Lowe agreed last spring to create. That project was much smaller than the original 290 units, much shorter and terraced toward the town so as to minimize the visual impact.

Nevertheless, Stunkel said, "We will take a close look."

One question that will be posed to the town, Walters said, is whether the town wants to keep the pedestrian ramp that is used to walk from the town to the Air Rights complex.

"We are curious what the town thinks," Walters said.

Another unusual feature of the project is that it will span a stretch of the popular Capital Crescent Trail, which begins in the District and goes through Chevy Chase and Bethesda, ending in Silver Spring.

At one point, the trail runs through a tunnel under Wisconsin Avenue and then 270 feet under the Air Rights Building parking garage, surfacing at Elm Street Park in the Town of Chevy Chase before heading to Silver Spring.

Walters said Lowe plans to improve the dark, almost bleak underground passage of the trail, adding a wider walkway and improved wall treatment to brighten the space. The company will also put in some low-light plantings and even provide irrigation, Walters said.

The company is considering creating a dozen concrete spheres in primary colors of red, green and blue that could go along the part of the trail that comes out toward Elm Street Park.

"They could be a way-finding device," Walters said. "The spheres will bring some character and color into the space. They will serve as environmental sculptures along the path."

Lowe will also put benches nearby and add a water fountain and landscaping.

The company also plans to improve the trail entrance by improving the concrete garage that now resembles a barrack next to the trail, Walters said.

Lowe will begin by landscaping the embankment that overlooks the trail and enclosing the upper space for a health club, with windows overlooking the trail.

That way, Walters said, people working out on exercise machines will be visible from the trail and that will add a sense of animation to the space.

"You won't feel quite so isolated when you are on the trail," he said.

There will be other sculptures in the project, Walters said, including one at each of the three entrances to the apartment complex.

The project will add about 80 new parking spaces, but tenants and owners will mainly rely on the 500 spaces already in the Air Rights garage, Walters said.